PRISM: NSA Confirms It's Spying, Using Secret Courts -- But It's All For Your Own Good

There have been two major leaks this past week that we want to talk about. First, news that Verizon turns over all phone call metadata -- the numbers called, dialed, and the duration of the phone call in question -- to the NSA. Second, news that the NSA has agreements with major tech companies, including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, that require those companies to turn over information.

Every firm named in these slides has come out and said it does not reveal information about US citizens without an appropriate court order. The NSA has released a statement confirming this, saying: "It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States.

"Activities authorized by Section 702 are subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress. They involve extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons."

This is true. It is also dangerously inaccurate. Let's talk about why you should care about these policies and what the NSA is and isn't saying. First, we're going to hop back in history. Stick with me; it's related. We're hopping back to 1986 and the investigation into the loss of the space shuttle Challenger.

The Normalization of Deviance:

For those of you who don't remember (or weren't alive), the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was caused by the disintegration of an O-ring seal inside the solid rocket booster (SRB). Without a proper seal, hot gas inside the booster penetrated the side of the rocket, leading to a catastrophic explosion. This was far from an unknown possibility; NASA found evidence of O-ring erosion on the second space shuttle mission ever flown, in 1981. The flaw was labeled "Criticality 1" meaning that a failure would destroy the Orbiter and kill the crew.

The night before the catastrophic launch, multiple engineers from Thiokol, the company that designed the flawed SRB system, called for NASA to push the launch back until the weather was warmer. The concern was that low temperatures would make it impossible for the O-ring to seal properly. NASA refused to delay and Thiokol withdrew the request. This, despite the fact that NASA's own policies mandated against relying on a backup part in a "Criticality 1" incident.

What does this have to do with the NSA? More than you might think. In the wake of the Challenger's loss, it became apparent that multiple warnings and safety protocols had been de-emphasized precisely because launches continued to go smoothly. Procedures that deviated from recognized safety margins and limits became the accepted norm.

That's precisely what's happening here. When the Patriot Act passed in 2001, it did not lead to the immediate formation of a police state. What it did do was create a framework in which virtually any intrusion into civil liberties could be justified in the name of stopping terrorism. In the intervening 12 years, the courts have steadily widened the rights and powers of various investigatory agencies.

Courts have upheld the government's argument that you cannot sue the government for warrantless wiretapping unless you can prove you were affected, and then upheld the government's right not to tell you if it put you under surveillance. Absent a complete cock-up (as happened with warrantless GPS tapping), you have no standing to bring a lawsuit. Now we know Verizon gives the government data on all phone calls, foreign and domestic. PRISM gives the government the right to spy on all US Internet traffic routing through major service providers.

The NSA believes it needs these unprecedented capabilities to fight terrorism, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda is a shell of its former self. PRISM, according to the New York Times, grew out of the laws that allowed the warrantless wiretaps to proceed in 2005 - 2006. As deviant behavior becomes "normal", actions that would've once been seen as unacceptable become the standard.

The Denials Are Meaningless:

Both Facebook and Google have denied working with the government on these matters and both have used the phrase "direct access." Again, it's probably true. The problem is, the government is allowed to (and encouraged) to trawl for data using a broad net. If the NSA uses PRISM to gain access to the account of John Doe, Chinese national, and John Doe corresponds with American Citizen #1, American Citizen #1 is now on the NSA's radar -- all without going to the trouble of getting a warrant. In theory, this type of data sweep is limited -- but you aren't allowed to see how it's limited.

Verizon, AT&T, Google, and Facebook don't really have a choice in these matters. Legally, they can be compelled to turn over the data. Arguing that they require the NSA to jump through certain hoops is effectively meaningless, given how much larger those hoops are these days. It's no coincidence that the Department of Justice has recently begun pursuing whistleblowers and journalists with unprecedented zeal.

The Bottom Line:

If you own a phone -- wired or wireless -- you can assume the NSA sees the records, even if it only sees the metadata. PRISM may currently apply only to foreign traffic routed through the United States, but the rules that determine when a US national is deemed as being connected to a foreign group are literally unknown. FISA functions as a rubber-stamp body; only a handful of the thousands of cases it processes each year are ever turned down. There's some good news -- a recent rulings deemed federal gag orders that prevent companies from even speaking about national security letters unconstitutional -- but that decision has yet to be upheld by the Federal Ninth Circuit.

As for non-telephone use, no, at this point, the government doesn't get access to everything, unless it decides it wants that access. If it does, it has no trouble going to FISA, rubber-stamping an application, and turning it over to Google, Facebook, or Yahoo, which are then required to comply.

What can you do about it? Nothing. Congress was briefed on this long ago; precious few legislators have spoken out against it. It's not a Bush problem or an Obama problem or a Republican / Democratic problem; the overwhelming majority of elected representatives from both parties have signed on to this as an appropriate means of fighting "terrorism."

If the government decides it needs to spy on US citizens the way it spies on foreign countries, the assertion of that requirement will be handled in a court with an acronym for a name. The evidence will be shrouded under state secrets.

Out of sight, out of mind.
Via:  Various
JamesLawler one year ago

*** the NSA and Obama.

NathanaelBahjejian one year ago

thanks for the information. loved the history part

AjayD one year ago

If US citizens aren't targeted, then how does Obama explain the millions of Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and god knows what other companies' customers who have all had their phone records and other personal information divulged to the government?

They claim this intrusive surveillance is limited in scope and attempt to support this claim through number trickery. For example, last year the Obama administration went to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court 200 times to ask for Americans’ “business records” under the USA Patriot Act. What they fail to mention, however, is the number of people included in each request. The single request to Verizon was for information on every one of their customers (≈85 million). I expect the other 199 such requests cast equally wide nets. Limited? Hardly.

The government might not have backdoor access yet to Google, Facebook, Skype, and the like, but it is only a matter of time. If our representatives are content to trade our privacy for false promises of security, then it's time we elect people who actually have our best interests at heart.

IanBabbitt one year ago


Joel H one year ago

It's a mistake to characterize this as an Obama issue; doing so misses the point . What we have today began with the passage of the Patriot Act. Blaming Obama (or Bush) ignores the *systemic* trend. The overwhelming majority of Republicans *and+ Democrats have supported these decisions.

If you prefer the more pragmatic view, yelling about who pushed a rock down a hill doesn't help get your family out of the way.

mhenriday one year ago

Have to agree with Joel Hruska here ; this trend definitely predates Messrs Bush and Obama and to my mind, is more a reflection of the technical means now available to keep people under surveillance without detailing a chap in a trench coat and fedora to trail them than something that suddenly was dreamed up by a genius at the NSA ; after all, Echelon has been going on for half a century. Bruce Schneier has published a sobering article over at the Atlantic, for those who want to learn more. Thanks, Joel, for publishing this on this forum - uncomfortable, but essential reading !...


AjayD one year ago

It is true that this trend of privacy violation and abuse of power began under the Bush administration with the Patriot Act, but that does not absolve Obama of responsibility. His most recent statements seem to endorse these programs, and he has made no attempt to dismantle the Patriot Act and the overstepping of authority made possible by it.

Unfortunately, your assessment is correct. The greater cause for concern is the overwhelming bipartisan support that these types of surveillance programs have. I suppose politicians are afraid of being seen as having failed to do everything within their power to prevent it, should another major terror event occur.

However, I refuse to allow fear to motivate my actions, and I will never be content to exchange personal liberties for hollow promises of safety. We are not omnipotent. Some things cannot be prevented, and to pretend otherwise is both arrogance and willful ignorance.

lifeasjosh one year ago

There is something we can do. Civil War. The government and all its solders are out numbers by a huge percentage. People say that America isn't that bad, but their wrong. You can't even make a phone call on a cellphone without being tracked and if you attempted to rally a few people in a place to protect even peacefully, you will handcuffed and sent to jail. Yes, it is that bad.

We need to stand together unafraid of our government and take real action. People should not fear their government, government should fear the people. And thats exactly whats happened. People are afraid to do what is necessary and the government knows this. They want you to fear them and just do as they say. How far will they take this? As far as we let them.

Joel H one year ago

There is something we can do. Civil War

Yeah, let me know how that works for you. The overwhelming majority of civil wars / revolutions end in disaster. The American Revolution was a rarity, in that it produced a stable, less authoritarian government than it sought to overthrow, and achieved most of its aims in the process.

Historically, almost all revolutions create worse governments than they topple. Even if I thought revolution was viable (I don't) or desirable (nope), launching one as a means of improving life is virtually guaranteed to fail.

sharline one year ago

is it true?So terrible.

Fierce Guppy one year ago

"Activities authorized by Section 702 are subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress. They involve extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons."

Oh, that's nice. So it's U.S. government surveillance carte blanche in store for us bloody foreigners, is it?

My... what a treat.

mhenriday one year ago

We foreigners - bloody are otherwise - simply enjoy special privileges exclusively for a (short) while, before they are also brought to residents of the United States. Take drone surveillance as an example, now common place inside that country as well. I predict that drone bombing will be next. All in «our» best interests, of course....



ricofrost one year ago

Really how could you not know this was already happening?

Nothing new here....

Joel H one year ago

Depends on what you mean by "Know."

But as I've written, my problem isn't with the capability, it's with the oversight and visibility into how that capability is used.

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